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Asa to LR: Drop dead 

click to enlarge Gov. Hutchinson - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Gov. Hutchinson

The Asa Hutchinson administration made clear this week its contempt for the residents, children and voters of Little Rock, at least those in the Little Rock School District, if not the red precincts of Chenal Valley.

Hutchinson's state education director, Johnny Key, sacked Baker Kurrus as superintendent of the Little Rock School District, effective June 30.

The firing wasn't for cause. Kurrus has cut the budget, moved forward with a new middle school, brought in Teach for America, reinvigorated needy schools with new leadership and generally won warm praise from just about every segment of the community. He's not a trained educator, but his long tenure on the School Board and his diligence made him probably the singularly most informed person to lead this difficult urban school district. And results are evident all over in rising performance and confidence.

So why was he fired? One word will suffice: Walton.

The Walton Family Foundation and its billions now control education policy in Republican Arkansas. They own a propaganda mill at the University of Arkansas. They support a charter school advocacy organization and a full-time slashing critic of Little Rock schools. They underwrite just about anybody who's willing to try to start a new charter school in Little Rock to siphon its students, particularly the higher income ones.

And this is where Baker Kurrus came a cropper. Honesty prevented him from lying. He said charter schools have been bad for the Little Rock School District and recent expansion by eStem and LISA Academy into large, freestanding school districts mean more damage. His real mistake was presenting data (which the Education Department itself won't gather) to the state Board of Education. The door was opened by Board of Education member Diane Zook, aunt of the Walton-paid charter school lobbyist Gary Newton. She wanted data to make the schools look bad. Baker gave her the full Little Rock story. It's not good for the charter school cause. But the board approved charter expansions anyway — with votes from a member who runs an organization that depends on financial benevolence from power brokers; from a former Walton employee; from an employee of the Murphy fortune, also charter school backers; from a tool of the home school- and voucher-advocating Family Council hate group, and from Zook, not only related to a Walton lobbyist but married to the head of the big business lobby in Arkansas.

The Kurrus presentation to the board was the last straw, I believe. Key told Kurrus last week his contract would not be renewed. He found a replacement in, where else, Bentonville, family seat of the Walton fortune. Superintendent Mike Poore knows how to work with Waltons (though not with some board members who once wanted to fire him.)

Now comes the great experiment in Little Rock — 26,000 kids for the Waltons to use as lab rats. Hutchinson has spit on Little Rock. He's spit on its school supporters. He's spit on Baker Kurrus

Hutchinson has a tin ear politically. See his fumbling with the continuation of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion in Arkansas. He's taken Democrats for granted in the process, though he can't preserve his budget without them. With a critical vote on that issue pending, it wasn't the best time to fire a widely respected, trusted and capable leader of a school district that is home to many legislative Democrats.

Money talks and a good man walks.

P.S. — I had to scrap a column prepared earlier on middle school performance on the state school report card. It's central to the larger story that charter schools targeted middle schools first in Little Rock. Results: Four of Little Rock's seven middle schools had higher report card scores than vaunted eStem, allowed to expand on the presumption it was superior to Little Rock. One other, the reviled-by-Walton-lobbyist Henderson Middle (all black and poor), was in a virtual dead heat with eStem. The other two Little Rock middle schools (one decimated years ago by LISA Academy creaming of its students) were just a whisker behind. Don't confuse Key, Hutchinson or Zook with facts.

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